Triggers – What Sparks Challenging Behavior

Triggers – What Sparks Challenging Behavior

Dana Rooks, MEd & Emily Graybill, PhD, NCSP

Center for Leadership in Disability

When thinking about challenging behaviors, the positive behavior support process first has us consider what a child may be trying to communicate through a behavior – why the child is engaging in the behavior or what the child is accomplishing through the behavior.  As you read about Kaleb and Brittany below, consider what they may be communicating through their behaviors.

Kaleb, age 9, has recently begun cursing in the classroom.  Many of his classmates laugh at him when he curses, and his teacher typically threatens to send him to the assistant principal’s office if he continues to curse. 

Brittany, age 2, has always been a picky eater, but her mother notices it’s becoming worse.  She struggles with her mother at mealtimes, throws food on the floor, and her mother often ends up letting her have applesauce in front of the television just to get something in her stomach.

Another important piece of information about the behavior is what may be triggering, or causing, the behavior to emerge.  A trigger could be anything about the environment or the situation that “sets off” the behavior.

Common triggers for challenging behaviors in children include:




Being asked to do something they don’t want to do

Being told to begin/stop a task

Being told “no” they can’t do something or have something

Interactions with adults they do not like

Parent attention to another sibling or adult

Moving between or changing activities (e.g., From circle time to center time.)

Sibling comment to the child

Tasks are too hard (e.g., Reading passages that are above the child’s reading level.)

Change of medication/side effects of medication

Teacher attention to other students

Birth of a new sibling

Unwanted peer attention

Irregular sleep schedule

Peer comment (e.g., “You’re so stupid.”)

Anxiety about school or friends

Noise level (e.g., Echoing and shouting in the gymnasium.)


Lighting (e.g., Fluorescent lights that are aggravating or overstimulating.)

Parent Separation/Divorce

Seating arrangement


Some triggers occur right before the behavior, and can be identified by observing and taking note of what is going on around the child when the behavior begins.  For example, your two children always get into a shouting match with each other when you tell them to come to dinner.  The next time you tell them to come to dinner, you pause outside the living room door to observe, and you hear your daughter say to her brother, “I’m going to beat you back to the X-Box after dinner!”  Her comment to your son is the trigger for the shouting.

Other triggers occur long before the behavior, and can be identified by questioning those who are with the child at other times throughout the day (e.g., lack of sleep the night before may trigger tantrums the next day).  By identifying triggers for a behavior, it may be possible to prevent or at least limit the impact of the triggers so the behavior is not “set off” at all.  Read more about Kaleb and Brittany.

Kaleb’s teacher asks the school psychologist to observe him, as the cursing seems to be random.  The school psychologist noted that the student seated behind Kaleb would quietly whisper, “Say it,” right before Kaleb cursed. Kaleb’s teacher had not realized this commenting was occurring, triggering the cursing behavior.

Brittany’s mother decided to talk to her pediatrician about her eating difficulties.  He made some parenting suggestions, but also decided to run some additional lab tests.  Through the testing, Brittany’s pediatrician discovered she was allergic to wheat products, and determined that she was probably experiencing discomfort from eating, which was triggering the mealtime behaviors.

Kaleb’s teacher and Brittany’s mother both took the time to gather more information about the children’s behavior before reacting to it.  Kaleb’s teacher might have automatically used a more traditional discipline method, such as sending him to the principal, which could have stopped the cursing momentarily, but would have done nothing to stop his classmate from urging the behavior.  Similarly, Brittany’s mother might have refused to allow her to leave her highchair without eating her meal, in essence making her eat food that made her feel bad.  They instead searched for the things that were going on before the behaviors and were able to discover the triggers that sparked them.

Read the next article to learn more about how your reactions to your child’s or student’s behavior could be making the behavior worse.  For more information about positive behavior support, visit the Positive Behavior Videos, which is a free, online resource for families, educators, and community service providers.

Dana Rooks, MEd, worked as the Positive Behavior Support Associate for the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University. She has 10 years of experience in special education, in both instruction and identification of children with learning differences.

Emily Graybill, PhD, NCSP, is a faculty member in the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University. She is a school psychologist by training and worked as a school psychologist for six years. She currently trains educators around the state on individualized positive behavior supports. Contact Dr. Graybill with inquires about positive behavior support training


PDF of this article is located at: Triggers – What Sparks Challenging Behavior